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Notre Dame and independents college football offseason preview

Fortunes have always varied wildly for the club of seven independent FBS teams, but the year of the coronavirus created a set of fates that couldn’t possibly have been more varied.

Two indies opted out of the fall season altogether (New Mexico State and UConn), while a third initially opted out before taking on a few blowout losses instead (UMass). The most storied indie of all (Notre Dame) joined the ACC for a year, nearly won it, then reverted to conference-less status, while two others enjoyed nearly unprecedented success: BYU and Liberty went a combined 21-2 with year-end AP rankings of 11th and 17th, respectively. All the while, Army continued its progress under Jeff Monken as though the outside world hadn’t changed at all.

In 2021, Notre Dame and BYU have key pieces to replace, Liberty’s got a potential first-round quarterback leading the way, Army’s got more returning production than normal and, well, the bottom three remain the bottom three. Let’s preview each indie squad.

Every week through the summer, Bill Connelly will preview another division from the Group of 5 and Power 5 exclusively for ESPN+, ultimately including all 130 FBS teams. The previews will include 2020 breakdowns, 2021 previews and a brief history of each team in one handy chart. The series has thus far covered the Conference USA East and West, the MAC East and West, the MWC Mountain and West, the Sun Belt West and East and the top and bottom half of the AAC.

Jump to a team: New Mexico State | UMass | UConn | Army | BYU | Liberty | Notre Dame

After opting out of the fall season and playing only a pair of spring games, Doug Martin enters his ninth year in Las Cruces with a mostly new roster and few signs of serious hope.

2021 Projections

Projected SP+ rank: 130th

Projected record: 2-10

  • Likely wins*: Dixie State (77% win probability)

  • Relative toss-ups: UMass (41%), UTEP (40%)

  • Likely losses: Utah State (25%), at New Mexico (21%), Hawaii (14%), at Hawaii (8%), at SDSU (4%), at SJSU (3%), at Nevada (3%), at Kentucky (1%), at Alabama (0%)

* Likely wins are games in which SP+ projects the scoring margin to be greater than seven points, or above about 65% win probability. Likely losses are the opposite, and relative toss-ups are all the games in between.

2 Related

The schedule features five teams projected worse than 120th in SP+. That offers hope of a few wins … but those teams are looking at NMSU as a likely win, too.

What we learned about NMSU in 2020

Nothing particularly good. Martin openly treated the Aggies’ two spring contests as experiments, playing as many guys as possible. It showed: They got throttled 43-17 by Tarleton State and needed a last-minute touchdown to beat Dixie State.

NMSU heads into the fall with few major contributors from 2019 and a defense that allowed 1,010 yards to two FCS newcomers. Not a great situation.

The offensive line will be a strength, at least. Left tackle (and Canadian Football League first-round draft pick) Sage Doxtater is the most proven talent on the roster, center Eli Johnson is an Ole Miss transfer, and the line’s got both size and experience. RBs Juwaun Price and Alex Escobar averaged 5.9 yards per carry this spring behind it.

They still need a QB — either Jonah Johnson, Weston Eget or freshman Trevor Appelman, probably — to step up, and the defense remains a black hole. But having a good O-line is better than not having one.

What we didn’t learn about NMSU in 2020

The best path forward. NMSU really likes playing top-division football and will continue doing so as long as possible. And, who knows, there could be another wave of conference realignment that might save the Aggies from independence in the coming years.

The glory of the 2017 Arizona Bowl is far in the rearview mirror, though, and things looked pretty dire this spring. Martin’s contract expires after this season, and the school will then presumably hire someone else to try to push this boulder up the hill all over again.

NMSU’s history in one chart

Bill Connelly/ESPN
  1. After throwing for nearly 3,000 yards in college, Charley Johnson became NMSU’s most successful pro player, throwing for 24,410 yards and reaching a Pro Bowl.

  2. Johnson was behind center as the 1960 Aggies rolled to 11-0, won the Sun Bowl and finished No. 17 in the AP poll.

  3. The last time NMSU finished more than one game over .500: 1967, when Warren Woodson’s last Aggies team went 7-2-1.

  4. A long, slow decline hit rock bottom: NMSU went 10-78 from 1984 to 1991. There was a noticeable, if slight, uptick from there.

  5. The 2017 Arizona Bowl: one of my favorite recent football memories. NMSU beat Utah State in OT, and its fans rushed the field like it was the national title game. Glorious.

About 2,300 miles northeast of Las Cruces, another program is fighting an existential crisis with no conference home and, per what we saw on the field last fall, minimal proven talent.

2021 Projections

Projected SP+ rank: 129th

Projected record: 3-9

  • Likely wins*: Rhode Island (66% win probability)

  • Relative toss-ups: at NMSU (59%), UConn (50%), Maine (36%)

  • Likely losses: EMU (26%), Toledo (12%), Boston College (7%), at Army (6%), at Florida State (3%), at Pitt (2%), at Liberty (2%), at Coastal Carolina (1%)

After going 0-4 with an average loss of 40-3, Walt Bell’s squad does face a few beatable opponents. Bell is 1-15 so far, so beating two of them would constitute genuine progress.

What we learned about UMass in 2020

Plenty of spots on the two-deep are up for grabs! Based on last year’s on-field production, here’s a complete list of guys who definitively earned starting spots for 2021: guards Reggie Marks III and Max Longman, defensive ends Uchenna Ezewike and Avien Peah, cornerbacks Josh Wallace and Noah Boykin, and safety Tanner Davis, who had five TFLs in just 206 snaps.

That’s better than nothing, but against four Group of 5 opponents, UMass ranked 127th in success rate and 125th in success rate allowed. The Minutemen scored one total touchdown and averaged 188 yards per game. They rushed the passer pretty well and limited big pass plays, but opponents ran the ball at will.

It was dire, in other words.

What we didn’t learn about UMass in 2020

Anything about who will win those spots. Bell hit the transfer portal hard, adding potential starters to nearly every unit on the field, from Colorado quarterback Tyler Lytle to Rutgers running back Kay’Ron Adams to Louisiana Tech left tackle Willie Allen (who originally committed to Michigan) to UNC DBs Bryson Richardson and Bryce Watts.

There’s no telling who will win the QB battle between Lytle, sophomore Garrett Dzuro and redshirt freshman Zamar Wise, and the skill corps is desperately unproven. But the line should improve, and defensive coordinator Tommy Restivo’s pass defense should be legitimately decent. It’s easy to see the Minutemen improving, but then again, it would be almost impossible to get worse.

UMass’ history in one chart

Bill Connelly/ESPN
  1. UMass had a strong FCS history, winning the national title in 1998 and reaching the finals in 2006. That the Minutemen looked to move to FBS made some semblance of sense.

  2. The timing of the jump was terrible: They were a .500 team over their final four FCS seasons and went just 2-22 in their first two years in FBS.

  3. Mark Whipple, head coach during the 1998 title run, returned in 2014, and things got slightly better. He won 16 games in five years.

  4. Tajae Sharpe: 2,600 receiving yards in 2014-15, then 1,167 yards and counting with the Tennessee Titans. Best recent UMass product.

  5. Bell was hired to improve recruiting and bring energy to a flagging program. It’s not too late, but nothing’s happened as of yet.

Like UMass with Whipple, UConn asked a successful former coach to return and save the program from a downward slide. As with Whipple, it hasn’t worked out just yet for Randy Edsall.

2021 Projections

Projected SP+ rank: 127th

Projected record: 3-9

  • Likely wins*: None

  • Relative toss-ups: Holy Cross (60%), at UMass (50%), Yale (39%), MTSU (37%)

  • Likely losses: at Vanderbilt (24%), Wyoming (15%), Houston (11%), at Fresno State (9%), at Army (8%), Purdue (5%), at UCF (2%), at Clemson (0%)

UConn brings back a good portion of its 2019 core after opting out last fall, but that core went 2-10 and ranked 126th in SP+. Regardless, beat Holy Cross, UMass and Yale — far from a guarantee — and finish 125th, you can claim improvement.

What we learned about UConn in 2020

Maybe the culture is coming along? UConn wasn’t hit as hard as it could have been by attrition — the Huskies’ leading 2019 passer (Jack Zergiotis), rusher (Kevin Mensah) and receiver (Cameron Ross) all return, along with five of the top six defensive linemen and the top five linebackers. The offensive line and secondary are starting over a bit, but experience and continuity aren’t bad, all things considered, and if you squint, you might see that as a reason to believe that the culture Edsall wants to build is taking hold.

What we didn’t learn about UConn in 2020

Whether there’s enough actual talent here. Last time we saw the Huskies, they were ranking 125th in both offensive and defensive SP+. In the three seasons of Edsall’s second tenure, they’ve won six total games and haven’t yet finished higher than 122nd.

It wouldn’t surprise me if a front seven led by veteran linebackers D.J. Morgan, Omar Fortt and Dillon Harris and mountainous tackle Travis Jones takes a decent step forward, and in the offensive backfield senior Kevin Mensah is steady and Miami transfer Robert Burns could have some pop. But neither Zergiotis nor fellow sophomore Steven Krajewski distinguished himself behind center in 2019, and the O-line and secondary each might feature only one or two upperclassmen. A strong culture is great, but having true FBS-ready guys is even more important.

UConn’s history in one chart

Bill Connelly/ESPN
  1. UConn was at one point a true FBS up-and-comer under Edsall. The Huskies went 9-3 in 2003, then joined the Big East and went 8-4 in their first season.

  2. The best UConn team to date went 9-4 in 2007, walloping Pitt and beating No. 11 USF to briefly move as high as 16th in the AP poll.

  3. Edsall’s worst team in years scored the program’s biggest prize: a 2010 Big East co-title and Fiesta Bowl bid. Edsall left for Maryland that offseason, replaced by Bob Diaco.

  4. After five bowls in seven seasons, the Huskies made only one after 2010: the 2015 St. Petersburg Bowl, keyed by a top-50 Diaco defense.

  5. The Diaco era quickly fell apart, and Edsall has yet to establish traction in his second go-round.

After plummeting from 11 wins to five in 2019, Army bounced back in a major way — and with a young team, no less.

2021 Projections

Projected SP+ rank: 72nd

Projected record: 7-5

  • Likely wins*: Bucknell (99% win probability), UMass (94%), UConn (92%), Miami (Ohio) (81%), WKU (72%), vs. Navy (69%)

  • Relative toss-ups: vs. Air Force (63%), Wake Forest (49%), at Georgia State (47%), at Ball State (44%)

  • Likely losses: at Liberty (26%), at Wisconsin (7%)

Topping last year’s 9-3 record will require some great road performances — the Black Knights play at Wisconsin, Liberty and two other top-80 teams — but another bowl is quite likely.

What we learned about Army in 2020

Jeff Monken’s program is built to last. From 2000 to 2015, Army averaged 2.8 wins per year and an average SP+ ranking of 112th. Beginning in 2016, Monken’s third season in charge, the Black Knights improved to 102nd, then 91st, 84th, 72nd and 69th. They’ve averaged 8.6 wins over five years. They were a little lucky to win 11 in 2018 and unlucky to win five the next year, but the trajectory is undeniable.

Monken was heavily considered for the recently filled Kansas job, but as long as power-conference teams continue to resist the pull of the triple option, he will continue to reinforce the infrastructure in West Point.

What we didn’t learn about Army in 2020

Is this defensive surge sustainable? In Nate Woody’s first year as defensive coordinator, the former Appalachian State and Georgia Tech DC oversaw a surge from 80th to 43rd in defensive SP+. The Black Knights attacked the run with vigor (fifth in rushing success rate allowed) and prevented big pass plays. They blitzed whenever they could and raised their game in the red zone. They return 13 of the 18 players who saw 150-plus snaps, including a brilliant safety in Cedrick Cunningham, cornerback Julian McDuffie and attacking linebackers Arik Smith and Malkelm Morrison.

The offense wilted to 96th in offensive SP+ while in transition, but it returns three QBs who saw at least 130 snaps (Christian Anderson, Jemel Jones, Tyhier Tyler), plus 2019 part-timer Jabari Laws, who missed last year with a torn ACL. The line replaces four starters, but four returning backups saw 100-plus snaps. If the defense struggles to maintain gains, the offense should pick up slack.

Army’s history in one chart

Bill Connelly/ESPN
  1. In part due to wartime transfers, Army fielded quite possibly the greatest team ever in 1945, going 9-0 and beating four top-10 teams by a combined 169-20.

  2. After slow postwar regression, Army surged in 1958, Red Blaik’s final season, going 8-0-1 and finishing third in the AP poll. Their highest finish since: 19th.

  3. After maintaining a top-40 level for most of the 1960s, the program swiftly fell apart. Army averaged a No. 107 SP+ ranking and 3.7 wins per year from 1969 to 1983.

  4. Jim Young’s hire in 1983 sparked a brief turnaround. The Cadets won nine games in 1985 and 1988 but enjoyed just two winning seasons in the 19 years after Young’s 1990 retirement.

  5. The 21st century was mostly unkind to Army football until Monken’s 2014 hire.

After fielding BYU’s best team since 1984, then losing quite a few difference-makers, Kalani Sitake looks to keep inevitable regression to a minimum.

2021 Projections

Projected SP+ rank: 52nd

Projected record: 7-5

  • Likely wins*: Idaho State (99% win probability), at Utah State (88%), USF (85%), vs. Arizona (74%), at Georgia Southern (68%)

  • Relative toss-ups: Virginia (57%), Boise State (47%), at Baylor (44%), at Washington State (39%)

  • Likely losses: Utah (29%), Arizona State (29%), at USC (17%)

Seven power-conference opponents, four projected top-40 foes … the Cougars get the schedule it would have been great to have had last year.

What we learned about BYU in 2020

This program’s upside remains immense. In their first nine seasons of independence, the Cougars established a comfort zone of between seven and nine wins (seven times) and a ranking between 35th and 46th in SP+ (seven times). Things briefly fell apart in 2017, but Sitake brought in both offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes and quarterback Zach Wilson in 2018. Three years later, after a surge to seventh in SP+ and 11-1 overall, Wilson was going second in the NFL draft, and Grimes was off to call plays at Baylor.

QBs coach and new coordinator Aaron Roderick will have devastatingly powerful running back Tyler Allgeier and a strong receiving corps (slot Neil Pau’u, deep threat Gunner Romney, Pac-12 transfers Puka and Samson Nacua) at his disposal. The line loses two fantastic tackles, but there’s experience on the interior.

All eyes are on the QB position, however. The battle between sophomores Baylor Romney and Jaren Hall and blue-chip freshman Jacob Conover will evidently continue into the fall.

What we didn’t learn about BYU in 2020

Can depth stave off regression? BYU ranks last in FBS in returning production, and turnover in both lines and the secondary is, along with Wilson’s departure, the primary reason. Because of both depth and the fact that BYU was constantly blowing out weak opponents on last year’s makeshift schedule, 27 defenders saw at least 100 snaps in 2020 — that might offer consolation.

Sitake has fielded three top-40 defenses in five years, and there are no long-term issues to speak of. But can the return of young potential standouts like linebacker Max Tooley, corner Micah Harper and safety George Udo, plus 2019 contributors Chaz Ah You (safety) and Atunaisa Mahe (tackle), help stem a short-term slide?

BYU’s history in one chart

Bill Connelly/ESPN
  1. After a reasonably anonymous history, BYU hired LaVell Edwards, who decided to get weird and throw the ball all over creation. It worked out pretty well.

  2. From 1979 to 1985, with QBs like Jim McMahon, Steve Young and Robbie Bosco, BYU averaged 11 wins with five AP top-20 finishes and a shocking 1984 national title.

  3. Ty Detmer won the Heisman in 1990, and BYU went 14-1 with Steve Sarkisian at QB in 1996, but Edwards retired in 2000 after a brief, late slide.

  4. Independence brought both stability and stagnation for the Cougs under Bronco Mendenhall, who left for Virginia in 2016.

  5. Under Sitake, things have become more volatile, for better and worse. But if he’s got a few more 2020s in him, fans might forgive an occasional 2017.

After coming within one point of 11-0, and with a potential first-round quarterback in Malik Willis, Hugh Freeze’s Flames will see unprecedented hype and attention this fall.

2021 Projections

Projected SP+ rank: 42nd

Projected record: 9-3

  • Likely wins*: Campbell (99%), UMass (98%), ODU (94%), at ULM (94%), MTSU (93%), at North Texas (83%), at Syracuse (77%), Army (74%), at UAB (65%)

  • Relative toss-ups: at Troy (59%), Louisiana (40%)

  • Likely loss: at Ole Miss (30%)

A backloaded schedule could allow for a ferocious start before three of the four most well-projected opponents (Ole Miss, Louisiana, Army) all show up in November.

What we learned about Liberty in 2020

Gus Malzahn might have picked the wrong quarterback. In two seasons at Malzahn’s Auburn, Malik Willis saw only occasional usage in Wildcat QB situations (28 rushes, 14 passes). He transferred, and while Auburn ranked 46th in offensive SP+ last season, Liberty jumped to 34th. Willis was as devastating as ever with his legs (1,059 non-sack rushing yards at 8.7 per carry), but he also showed off a cannon of an arm, and Liberty ranked both fifth in rushing success rate and 18th in passing success rate.

Willis is still a runner at heart, and Liberty’s ground game, which also includes backs Joshua Mack and Shedro Louis, Utah transfer TJ Green and a line returning almost fully intact, should again be one of the best in the country. But the draft hype assures that we’ll all be watching what happens when Willis drops to pass. Six of last year’s top seven wideouts return, and Freeze added North Texas’ Austin Ogunmakin and big junior college transfer Stetson Moore. We’ll see if Willis’ development has another gear.

What we didn’t learn about Liberty in 2020

How much better can this defense get? In two seasons under defensive coordinator Scott Symons, the Flames have improved from 122nd to 86th to 61st in defensive SP+. From the same 4-2-5 that Freeze enjoyed at Ole Miss, Liberty was inefficient against the run but attacked relentlessly once opponents were behind schedule: The Flames ranked 12th in passing success rate allowed and 18th in sack rate.

Ten defensive starters return, including ace pass-rushers Durrell Johnson and Tre’Shaun Clark and safeties Javon Scruggs and Juawan Treadwell. Plus, Freeze made liberal use of the transfer portal, adding maybe ULM’s and UTEP’s best defenders (linebacker Rashaad Harding and corner Duron Lowe, respectively) and a ball-hawking safety in Washington State’s Skyler Thomas. The Flames might not improve dramatically against the run, but everything about an already-strong pass defense could get better.

Liberty’s history in one chart

Bill Connelly/ESPN
  1. In 2014 came LU’s pre-FBS peak: The Flames beat James Madison and narrowly fell to Villanova in their first FCS playoff appearance.

  2. After winning or sharing eight Big South titles under first Danny Rocco, then Turner Gill, LU made the decision to jump to FBS in 2017.

  3. LU’s debut was all right — 6-6 with an occasionally exciting offense. Gill retired after the season.

  4. In Freeze’s first season succeeding Gill, the Flames jumped from six wins to eight and from 121st to 75th in SP+.

  5. Despite losing QB Stephen Calvert and star receiver Antonio Gandy-Golden, Willis & Co. assured further massive improvement in Freeze’s second year.

For the first 10 games of 2020, Notre Dame fielded its best team since 1993. Things ended with a thud, however: losses to Clemson and Alabama that could have been worse than their combined 51-point margin.

2021 Projections

Projected SP+ rank: 25th

Projected record: 7-5

  • Likely wins*: Navy (94%), Toledo (87%), Georgia Tech (74%), at Stanford (73%), Purdue (69%), at Florida State (68%), at Virginia (66%)

  • Relative toss-ups: at Virginia Tech (53%), USC (45%), Cincinnati (44%), UNC (40%)

  • Likely losses: vs. Wisconsin (33%)

Those five toss-ups and likely losses above? They show up consecutively in the middle of the season, from Sept. 25 (Wisconsin) to Oct. 30 (UNC).

What we learned about Notre Dame in 2020

Brian Kelly has built one of the most consistent programs in the country. In his 11 seasons in South Bend, Kelly’s Irish have won 8 or more games 10 times, and they’ve finished in the SP+ top 20 for six consecutive years — Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and Oklahoma are the only other programs to pull that off. He loses star players and star assistants, and the train keeps rolling. The Irish recruit at a top-10 or so level, and in terms of consistency of quality, Kelly runs a top-10 program.

What we didn’t learn about Notre Dame in 2020

What is Notre Dame’s floor at this point? In a year in which seemingly everyone returns their starting quarterback and 80% or more of last year’s production, the Fighting Irish have to replace starting QB Ian Book and their top two WRs, four All-ACC offensive linemen (!!) and stars at defensive end, outside linebacker, cornerback and strong safety. They rank 123rd in returning production, and initial SP+ projections had them dropping to their worst ranking since 2014.

It would surprise me if they fall that far. The Irish do still have proven entities and emerging stars: running backs Kyren Williams and Chris Tyree, tight end Michael Mayer, center Jarrett Patterson, nose guard Kurt Hinish, linebacker Drew White and, of course, all-world safety Kyle Hamilton. Wisconsin transfer Jack Coan should assure sturdy play at QB — if a youngster like Drew Pyne or star freshman Tyler Buchner beats him for the job, that suggests a pretty high level of play — and strong recruiting should produce more stars soon. But will requisite upside and consistency emerge without a few setbacks?

And what is the ceiling? Constantly playing at a top-20 level is a massive achievement, but the Irish have topped 12th in SP+ only once with Kelly (eighth in 2015). It seemed like they were flashing a higher ceiling last year, but the last two games suggested that it was still far lower than that of FBS’ primary powers.

Kelly, the school’s longest-serving head coach since Knute Rockne, will almost certainly continue producing high-level results, but is there a way to close the gap with the top programs?

Notre Dame’s history in one chart

  1. Frank Leahy’s post-war Irish teams were among the most talented in college football history, going 36-0-2 with three AP titles from 1946 to 1949.

  2. The program slid after Leahy’s 1953 retirement but rebounded instantaneously upon Ara Parseghian’s hire in 1964. He enjoyed nine top-10 finishes in 11 years.

  3. The hire of high school coaching legend Gerry Faust in 1981 remains one of the most creative, and mediocre, in the school’s history. He went 30-26-1 before Lou Holtz replaced him in 1986.

  4. From 1988 to 1993 under Holtz, the Irish averaged 11 wins, with a national title and two No. 2 finishes, their last run of truly elite play.

  5. In 11 seasons, Kelly has reestablished Notre Dame’s high-level credentials but has only one SP+ top-10 finish. Can he engineer further improvement?

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